Soooo, in case there’s any doubt, Hosea, and more importantly, the Lord, is not thrilled with the behavior of the people. Chances are when you read, “you have played the whore” (Hos. 9:1), you picked up on that. Score Hosea an “A” for honesty and clarity.
Hosea ministered during one of the most trying and turbulent periods for the people of Israel prior to the exile. The people had divided themselves into the northern and southern kingdoms, with the northern kingdom going through six kings in thirty years, most of them transitioning by way of assassination. The Assyrians were a seemingly unstoppable force, and the threat of defeat, isolation, and exile loomed over the people.
If this were not enough, the people had become increasingly unfaithful, worshipping Baal, the Canaanite god of weather and fertility, to whom they “consecrated themselves to the thing of shame, and became detestable like the thing they loved” (Hos. 9:10).
The “worship and religion” of Baal appealed to the human sex drive and distorted it through ritual prostitution, bestiality, infanticide, incest, and drunkenness. The intimation of the worship of Baal was that as the people engaged in these “fruitful” acts at the temples, Baal would bless the land with fertility. Throw into the mix the unfaithfulness of Hosea’s wife Gomer with their marriage as a painful parable of the adultery of the people of Israel, and we might say, “And I thought I had problems!”
Throughout this short book the prophet calls the people to return to God and issues the warning that there are undeniable consequences that they bring upon themselves through rebellion, unfaithfulness, and idolatry. Israel is described as an unfaithful spouse, loved by God and joined to him, yet obstinately and recklessly joining herself adulterously to Baal. Hosea warns of isolation and exile to come; yet even in this, God’s greater redeeming love is spoken of, for this exile will be a means of restoration.
As bad as all of this is, the ultimate message of this prophecy is the shocking faithfulness of God mercifully moving despite our unfaithfulness. The horrific sins of the people, our own horrific sins, do not compare to the inexhaustible grace and goodness of God. In Chapter 11 some of the most beautiful verses in the Bible are spoken, revealing God as a longsuffering, loving father. Despite all of the above, God remembers Israel with tenderness as his child:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as the one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them” (Hos. 11:1-4).
Tender, faithful, better than we deserve. This is the God that Hosea calls Israel (and us) to return to again and again, the one who is fierce in his love for us and tender in his mercy towards us. He foretells of the exile, and yet in the midst of this he assures us of his faithfulness, that he will not give up on or give away his people, promising to gather them like a lion:
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. They shall go after the Lord; he will roar like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling . . . and I will return them to their homes, declares the Lord” (Hos. 11:8-12).
Why would we turn and give our heart to another? Return to him who turns to us, who roars like a lion, who whispers like the wind (1 Kings 19:12), and who shepherds us and calls us by name (John 10:3).